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COVID, International Cooperation, and China-Africa: What Next?

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nurse Bhelekazi Mdlalose performs a swab test for COVID-19 coronavirus on a health worker at the Vlakfontein Clinic in Lenasia, Johannesburg, on May 13, 2020. MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

Compared to global COVID-19 hotspots such as Latin America, the United States, and India, African countries have – on average – fared relatively well thus far in the pandemic. However, cases are on the rise, with states such as South Africa and Egypt particularly badly hit, and the continent, like much of the rest of the world, faces a major public health and economic crisis.

In this context, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has repeatedly emphasized that COVID does not recognize international borders, and that international solidarity and cooperation are essential to defeating the virus.

However, thus far prospects for global collaboration have looked mixed. On the one hand, there are multiple international research and scientific cooperation efforts under way, and political and business leaders from around the globe have pledged commitment to work together against COVID.

On the other hand, the outbreak has seen some countries snatching vital protective equipment from others’ shipments, international competition to become the first producer (and consumer) of any coronavirus vaccine, and the US withdrawal from the WHO, dealing a severe blow to its funding and capabilities.

In Africa, China and some other states (alongside the EU) have been proactive in providing support in the COVID response. However, these efforts are largely bilateral rather than multilateral. As I write below, past experience indicates that there are substantial benefits to be had from “trilateral” efforts involving China, African partners, and other partners such as the UK or EU.

How could China, Africa, and other countries work together to mitigate the health and economic effects of COVID in Africa?

Lessons From Pre-COVID Trilateral Cooperation

While China has long been perceived as acting alone in its assistance to Africa, in recent years Beijing has been increasingly and successfully cooperating with Western partners to deliver support in Africa in multiple sectors.

In health, for example, under the China-UK Global Health Support Programme (GHSP) (2012-2019), China and the UK collaborated with local governments on a malaria control project in Tanzania, and on a maternal and child health project in Ethiopia. China and the UK have also worked together to deliver support to African partners in other sectors such as agriculture and facilitation of commercial investment.

As I wrote in this earlier article, the key benefit to working together has been leveraging the comparative advantages of all sides in a single project or location. While China brings more affordable technology and products that are more easily applied in a developing country context, speed and flexibility, and an ability and willingness to use development assistance to deliver commercial investment; Western countries typically offer advanced project management capabilities, deep pockets, and extensive attention to capacity building and community engagement. In the health sector, African partners also bring a wealth of experience in managing disease outbreaks with limited resources.

While the COVID crisis is unique in its severity and breadth, the general principle of working together to best leverage the comparative advantage of each player could be applied both to tackling the COVID public health impact, and, over the longer term to mitigating the resulting economic crisis with support in other sectors.

Dealing With the Health Crisis: Public Health and the COVID Response

Alongside teams of medical experts, China has been rapidly supplying masks, testing kits, and other protective equipment to African states. The country has decades of experience dispatching medical teams to Africa, and Chinese firms are the world’s largest makers of the equipment that has proven critical to the fight against COVID, so it makes sense that its efforts are concentrated in these areas.

At the same time, Western players such as the EU have been supporting capacity building and the deployment of community healthcare workers. In this case, the EU role is primarily as a source of funds: given its extensive experience dealing with epidemics, the latter will be implemented by Africa Center for Disease Control.

However, the benefits of these bilateral China-Africa and EU-Africa efforts could be increased through a trilateral approach. For example, in a coordinated effort, EU funds could be used to support community engagement in mitigating stigma associated with COVID-testing in specific locations, thereby encouraging cooperation with locally-led test, trace and quarantine measures, at the same time as China provides the test kits and other necessary equipment to those same locations.

Mitigating COVID’s Economic Impact: Facilitating Investment, Jobs, and Growth

There are also major opportunities for cooperation in mitigating the long term economic impact of COVID in Africa. The International Monetary Fund’s latest projections are of a drop in sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP of 3.2% this year, with some countries such as Nigeria and South Africa much more severely affected.

To mitigate this economic damage, and in particular to ease the impact on employment, job-creating investment is needed. Utilizing government assistance in a way that facilitates commercial investment has been a hallmark of China’s approach for much of the twenty-first century, and has been widely-regarded as successful in states such as Ethiopia.

And, while the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the “club” of mostly-Western donors, has been traditionally reticent about mixing aid and business, some have started to become interesting in working with China on this. For example, through the Partnership for Growth and Investment in Africa (PIGA) program, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) the two countries have worked together with Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, and Zambia to facilitate investment by Chinese and British companies in those countries.

The first priority is of course to get the health crisis under control. But, when and where it is safe to go back to work, Africa’s large, young population will urgently need the jobs created by such investments.

Is Trilateral Collaboration Politically Feasible?

Of course, while trilateral co-operation might be desirable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is feasible. Tensions in China’s relationship with the United States are spilling over into other potential partners. And, in the midst of dire economic warnings, the US is still mired in its first COVID-wave, the UK and some European states are facing a second. As a result, the pressure from domestic constituencies to conserve financial and medical resources at home is likely to deepen further. At the same time, while China is increasingly proud of its global medical assistance, its diplomacy is also increasingly belligerent, and the country also faces economic slowdown.

Cooperation between the US and China in Africa does indeed appear increasingly impossible in the current climate. However, top leaders and officials from China and other Western states such as the UK, as well as major Asian economies such as Japan have expressed interest in and commitment to collaboration with each other in the global fight against the virus. Given that in the context of COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe, let’s hope these warm words translate into substantial and concrete efforts.

Pippa Morgan is a Lecturer in Political Science at Duke Kunshan University.

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